Rajon Rondo messed around and got a triple-double Friday night, his 17 points, 12 assists, and 14 rebounds countered by 22 field goal attempts and six turnovers.
If Rondo messed around, Paul Pierce's stat line could be considered a mess: 3 for 12 shooting, 4 fouls, 2 assists, and 4 turnovers. But Pierce led all Celtics with 21 points, a product of 14 successful trips to the free throw line in 14 tries. It was a far cry from the 36 points he put up in Game 2, but it was unsurprising for fans of Pierce's methodology.
"By no means is this pretty," Pierce said after Game 3. "But who said it has to be pretty?"
Pierce was not invited to the podium for the post-game press conference despite being his team's leading scorer, while Rondo and Ray Allen got each got their turn in the spotlight. During his session with the media, Doc Rivers was not asked about Pierce, and the Celtics coach didn't bring him up. Just as it was during Game 3, Pierce was an afterthought.
The juxtaposition of Pierce the nobody and Pierce the leading scorer is something the Celtics captain has been dealing with his entire career. When Kevin Garnett became a Celtic in 2007, Pierce publicly deferred, allowing Garnett to be the face of the team. But Pierce quietly led the Celtics in scoring during their championship season, his NBA Finals MVP overshadowed by Garnett's primal scream at the conclusion of Boston's clinching victory in Game 6.
Friday night, Pierce's jump shot wasn't there. He made 1 of 5 shots from the field in the first half, the poster child for a team that shot 39 percent from the field before the break.
Even a rapt observer would have had difficulty believing the Celtics were leading at the break, but the fact is they led Atlanta, 40-38, despite the poor shooting and in spite of seven turnovers. Pierce went to the free throw line eight times in the first half and made all eight, an invisible weapon in what was otherwise a miserable half for the home team.
"Sometimes that's what it's got to be," said Pierce. "Every night is not going to be your night."
It continued not to be Pierce's night, but he continued to get to the line, putting points on the board without making shots from the field. Twice when Pierce went to the line, small chants of "M-V-P" broke out, a sign that some contingent was appreciating the work. Pierce played the entire second half and overtime, grinding out 21 points despite making just three shots from the field.
"You know playoffs are hard. Sometimes coaches are going to ask a lot out of you ... We made system changes when we added Rondo and Ray. I didn't expect to get 26 shots tonight."
Those 26 shots were in reference to Game 2 in Atlanta, when Pierce was the obvious hero with 36 points in a surprising Celtics win. Pierce didn't shoot particularly well in that game, either, but the point total and the result overshadowed any shooting deficiency.
In Friday's grind-it-out game, Pierce did have his impact moments. With 53.2 seconds left in the third quarter, Pierce took it hard to the basket and was fouled by Atlanta's Jeff Teague, sending Pierce to the line for his 13th and 14th free throws. Pierce found himself under the basket after the play and waved his arms above his head, imploring the crowd behind the hoop to recognize that two free throws count the same as a thunderous dunk.
Pierce finally did get his moment with 8:49 left in the fourth quarter, hitting a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Celtics up by 6 points. Celtics fans have seen those big momentum shots from their captain many times over the years. Friday night, the momentum fizzled like a cheap sparkler on the Fourth of July. Pierce missed a shot that would have won the game in regulation. Just prior to that, an offensive foul turned the ball over and gave the Hawks the ball back. The big moments were few and far between.
Pierce has played his entire career on the edge of glitz and monotony. Dressed in a baby blue suit, Pierce answered questions from a group of reporters in the Celtics locker room for a little over five minutes before the questioning fizzled out. The interesting topics had run out. The reporters began asking about when they'd be able to talk to Rondo. Pierce, his team's leading scorer, was free to go.